Living With a Toxic Legacy
(Ya’an, Sichuan Province) — When Tang Jiansheng’s 3-year-old daughter was diagnosed with dangerously high amounts of lead in her blood in July, her family immediately left their home located a few hundred yards from a zinc factory.
But dozens of families with children who have tested positive for lead poisoning in Shimian county, Sichuan province, are awaiting relocation, three years after the local government promised them new homes away from a polluting industrial park.
Chemical plants within the Sichuan Shimian Industrial Zone are located along a narrow strip of land tucked under a mountain range, and were built within 200 meters (219 yards) from many residential homes, a survey of the area by a Caixin reporter found. One home was just separated from a factory by a wall.
The local government had identified more than 750 families — living cheek by jowl with plants refining heavy metal — who qualified for relocation in 2013, but as of March less than a fifth of them had been moved.
This 2-year-old boy has been suffering from an unbearably itchy, recurring rash since he was a year old. Doctors have been unable to find a cure. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin
“I regret not moving earlier,” said Tang*, a former resident of Lianhe village that borders the industrial park. He now lives in the country’s main town area. Tang’s daughter has suffered from a skin rash since 2015 and her body is covered with copper-colored marks and little red bumps like those from mosquito bites. She often complains of a stomachache, but doctors were unable to explain the symptoms until tests in July showed the child had 195 microgram of lead per liter of blood. That’s nearly double the safe level of 100 micrograms per liter of blood.
A gradual build-up of lead in the bloodstream can damage the nervous system and cause anemia, muscle weakness, arrested development and brain damage, according to the World Health Organization. At high levels of exposure, it can result in coma, convulsions and death.
Sun Lunzhen, a local farmer in Shimian county’s Lianhe village, has collected a stack of medical bills over the past 10 years. The 61-year-old has been battling multiple illnesses such as hypertension, which she believes are the result of the pollution from local chemical plants. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin
Caixin’s reporter met more than a dozen children in Lianhe village and two other villages bordering the industrial park, named Zhuma and Yeping, who have developed a skin condition similar to that of Tang’s daughter. Some of their parents said they can’t afford to take their children to the hospital for testing.
Others, like Ye Huixian*, who is also from Lianhe village, said they can’t afford to move even after their children were diagnosed with lead poisoning years ago.
Ye’s 13-year-old son was first found to have a high level of lead in his blood in 2009. He has suffered from insomnia and developmental problems for years, and a recent test showed he still had 125 micrograms of lead per liter of blood.
Ye herself is suffering from a chronic kidney disease, which her doctors said was linked to exposure to chemicals including sodium benzoate.
Several residents from the three villages bordering the industrial zone said some factories have been dumping untreated wastewater and releasing toxic fumes for nearly a decade. Some have ignored government orders to stop polluting and even tried to pull the wool over the eyes of environmental inspectors, they said. “For more than a decade, we’ve had to keep our windows shuttered day and night, because there was so much dust in the air,” Tang said.
Many trees and bamboo in a valley near Lianhe village, including one ancient walnut tree, have died due to what local residents say is toxic water and air from nearby factories. Photo: Chen Liang/Caixin
The plight of residents in this once picturesque cluster of villages serves as a grim testament to China’s unruly development over the past three decades, which put economic growth ahead of the environment and public health.
Sihuan Zinc & Germanium Technology Co. Ltd., a zinc smelter, is among the companies that have allegedly discharged untreated industrial wastewater into the Zhuma River, a main waterway used by local farmers as a source of drinking water and for irrigation.
The company said it has stopped releasing wastewater into local rivers after the construction of a large wastewater treatment facility several years ago.
But villagers allege the company was flouting wastewater treatment standards after government inspectors left and had even laid underground pipes to discharge untreated water to fool enforcement officials.
They also said thick clouds of smoke were often seen billowing out of factory smokestacks from 2 to 3 a.m., several villages said.
Pale smoke can be seen hovering over several factories, including Sihuan Zinc, in a two-minute video shot by Tang in Lianhe village around 11 a.m. on Sept. 20.
Mi Yong, Sihuan Zinc’s chief engineer, dismissed these claims, saying the company’s anti-pollution facilities met industry standards. But he admitted that the company had released sulfur acid-laced smog into air before 2015.
Six local companies including Ya’an Sutong Electronic Components Co. Ltd. were named and shamed by a central government environmental protection inspection group in August for discharging wastewater or emissions exceeding industrial standards.
The Ya’an municipal government slapped unspecified fines on two of them thereafter. However, factories usually cut back production during inspections, so the real level of pollution could be far worse, several villages said. “Once the inspectors are gone, all machines are back on and production resumes full swing,” one added.
Although local authorities announced plans to recognize the area as an industrial park in 2012, some zinc smelters predate this time. Many factories sprouted up in the area during a construction boom from 2006 to 2010, and “freak smoke” was seen hovering above the mountains, turning once crystal-clear streams into dark, sludgy rivulets and killing livestock, crops and bamboo forests en mass, several villagers told Caixin.
But the local government has turned a blind eye, because the factories were the major taxpayer in this impoverished county. Its 2014 environmental impact assessment, the only one done to date, didn’t mention any emissions from the park.
Villagers have also remained mute about their health problems for years, because many were working for the heavy mental plants.
At least 150 workers, more than 7% of Sihuan Zinc’s staff, have developed various skin, heart and kidney problems, which they suspect are linked to the air and water pollution in the area, said one employee who wished to remain anonymous.
Wang Wen, a former employee at Sihuan, said she has had to stay home on paid medical leave since 2013.
She was in and out of the hospital several times during this period, including a stay at the intensive care unit for poisoning from arsenic hydride, a byproduct from smelting metal alloys.
“I can hardly climb up the stairs to my flat on the third floor,” said Wen, who is in her early 40s.
In response to a Caixin inquiry, a spokesperson for the Shimian county government said only “a few people” in the area were suffering from chronic health conditions such as skin problems and unsafe levels of lead in their blood. But he refused to comment on whether these conditions were linked to pollution from the industrial park.
The county government is planning to offer free health checkups to all children in the coming months, said the official who declined to give his name.
Most families who live near the industrial park said they aren’t lobbying the government to close the factories, but improve anti-pollution safeguards, because many have family members working in the industrial park.
They are also urging the county government to follow up on promises to relocate families next to the factories.
Tang, who works for a chemical plant in the industrial park, said the company added 3,000 yuan ($453) to his monthly salary after he complained about the high levels of lead in his daughter’s blood.
But instead of buying drugs, Tang has started giving his daughter a lot of milk, believing it would slowly dilute the lead buildup in her system.
“I’m afraid that medication could damage her kidneys and brain because she’s at such a fragile age,” he said.
Note: Tang Jiansheng and Ye Huixian are pseudonyms of the two interviewees who asked not to be identified due to fears that they may lose their jobs or government compensation.
Contact reporter Li Rongde (email@example.com)
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